Downblog there’s been some discussion of whether the muppets of the apocalypse were trying to make a thermobaric bomb the other day. That reminded me of Thomas Ricks’ account of second Fallujah in Fiasco, where the Marines apparently improvised a combination of C4 and propane gas cylinders as a house and bunker clearing device (for that “instant flatpack” effect). Fallujah also saw the use of more conventional thermobaric weaponry for the first time by US forces.
From al-Qaeda’s side of the hill, thermobarics weren’t new. The Russians deployed them indiscriminately in Chechnya. What they lacked was a means of fabricating their own, until, perhaps, US forces in Fallujah brought the devices low enough down the technology curve to make amateur experimentation viable. Certainly, Iraqi al Qaeda seems to have been dicking about with gas bombs since then. The apparent involvement of Iraqi national Bilal Abdulla in the events of last weekend maybe brings the connection home.
Such is technology transfer between enemies. According to Buda’s Wagon, the origins of the ANFO car bomb lie with the Wisconsin Department of Fish and Game, who produced a pamphlet explaining how a mixture of fertiliser and fuel oil would be a handy way for the rural resident to excavate his own fishing hole. This advice was taken up by Weather Underground radicals, who used it to bomb a military facility at the Madison faculty of the University of Wisconsin in 1970.
From there the technique was picked up by the IRA, at first with poor results: an IRA quartermaster was killed while trying to mix fuel oil and ammonium nitrate with a shovel in his shed. So PIRA decided to get rid of the remaining stuff by putting it all in a car and detonating it, and the ANFO car bomb was born.
Prior to the discovery of ANFO, the car bomber’s activities were circumscribed by the need to steal or buy commercial or military explosives. Post-ANFO, the bomber could just go to the local garden centre. One imagines that this loophole has been pretty firmly shut by now in the UK: I wonder how many allotment holders have been left quaking in their wellies after being instructed by gentlemen in unmarked cars never, under any circumstances, to repeat any details of the interesting conversation they have just had to anyone.
Perhaps some awareness of this possibility was one of the factors making home grown fuel-air bombs appealing: it may have been an instinctive adaptive response to the general security climate. Yet thermobarics need a significant explosive element to work. An improvised detonator won’t do, which puts would be car bombers back in the pre-ANFO environment of needing access to ready made explosives. The hope here is that the bombers may have been ushered up a cul de sac.